What if an ATV Overheats? Don’t let the pistons melt!


If you enjoy riding at fast speeds or on steep hills, ATV overheating will be a common issue for you. While it might not be a problem for the first couple of minutes when an ATV overheats, you need to cool it down in order to avoid serious damage.

When an ATV overheats the fluids will start thinning, the coolant levels will drop and the engine oil will burn off. The pistons, cylinder walls, and cylinder heads will be damaged if the ATV keeps overheating. In addition, the pistons can melt into the cylinder creating irreparable damage. This is why shutting off the engine so that it has time to cool down is essential. ATV overheating needs to be fixed ASAP.

There’s no doubt that an overheated ATV can lead to expensive mechanic bills. This is why you need to learn how to prevent it from happening. Keep on reading to get a full list of precautions you can take to cool down your engine and ride without worry even on the hottest days.

image explaining what happens if an ATV overheats

What Happens When an ATV Overheats?

Yamaha Raptor 700R

To put it shortly, it’s bad. Overheating is one of the most common problems off-road riders have to deal with and it shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, when the overheating warning light turns on, you should stop the ATV’s engine as soon as possible. If your ATV doesn’t have an overheating indicator, you can tell this is happening when you feel power loss, coolant spillage, and a hot case.

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It’s important to stop the ATV when the engine overheats because otherwise, you will have to deal with irreparable damage to the engine. At first, the fluids inside the engine will start thinning. This leads to the coolant levels dropping and causing the engine oil to burn off.

In general, this process happens in the first 10 to 15 minutes of an ATV engine overheating. If you don’t stop the engine and begin the cooling process, then the pistons (including the cylinder walls and heads) will melt. This is why cooling off the engine is a priority.

Does your ATV get hot and shuts off? In this case, the ATV needs to be taken to the mechanic’s shop. An ATV engine will automatically shut off when the heat reaches the highest threshold it can support without causing damage.

In my opinion, the best thing to do in order to prevent damage to your quad is to stop right when you see coolant spillage or the engine light coming on and start cooling down your ATV.

Are you new to ATVs? If yes, you might want to check out this article where I compare car oil vs ATV oil and showcase the top 5 differences all beginners need to know about.  

How Do I Cool Down My ATV?

When you notice your engine overheating, what you want to do is stop on the side of the road and turn your engine off. Turn your key to allow the fan attached to the radiator to work. At this point, most people would wait until the overheating warning light shuts off.

It’s what I used to do too. However, a few years back I met an ATV owner that attended a lot of races. Not only did he give me some great tips on keeping the engine cool (which I will share in just a sec), but also explained to me a more efficient way to cool down my ATV.

When you are letting your fan cool off your radiator, you’re actually cooling down the coolant mixture in it. But the rest of the cooling agent is still boiling in your engine. This means that you either need to sit a long time to wait for everything to cool off, or you run the risk of your engine heating up again soon after you ride off.

Well, there is quite an easy solution to this that I didn’t know about as a beginner. After your radiator cools off, you start your engine back again. In doing this, you allow your coolant to circulate between the engine and the radiator. You let the engine run for a little bit, then shut it off again and start up the fan.

With this method, your entire coolant mixture will reach a decent temperature, and your quad will be ready to hit the road again for hours on end.

Another quick method to cool off your engine on the go is to keep it running and spray water on the radiator. The coolant will keep flowing, and the water will cool it off faster than just leaving it to air-cool. Whichever method you choose to cool down your ATV, try to position your quad toward the wind for a quicker result.

All of these tips are great when you’re out and about, but when you get home I suggest you inspect your four-wheeler and determine what was the cause of overheating.

How Do I Stop My ATV from Overheating?

Overheating can be caused by a multitude of factors such as a dirty radiator, faulty radiator cap, broken water pump, low coolant levels, old coolant, bad coolant and water mixture, lean fuel mixture, and a blown head gasket.

The way you use your quad can put a lot of stress on it too, such as when you ride for hours in extreme heat or you use it to haul heavy cargo at low speeds. Air cooled engines can also suffer from a lot of idling on hot days.

Fortunately, you can easily avoid the last issue by shutting down the ATV when you stop on your trails. For the rest of them, I’ll get into more detail.

Here are the steps I would take to find the cause of your ATV overheating:

#1 Check Your Radiator

The most common cause of overheating is a clogged-up radiator. This part of your quad is the main component in charge of cooling, so if it’s dirty it will not do a good job.

I like checking my radiator after each trail ride I go on, especially if I know I’ve been riding in muddy conditions. I usually just clean it off with a garden hose and I’m good to go. You can also try a pressure washer or an air compressor if you have them.

In case you have some stubborn debris stuck in your fins, I recommend you use a foaming agent to push the dirt out of your radiator. Here is a helpful video from another off-road enthusiast on the YouTube channel Chad Outdoors that I feel does a great job of explaining how to use this solution to clean your radiator:

Next up, you can check your radiator cap’s pressure. Whether there is too much or too little, both can affect the way your cooling system works and leave your engine vulnerable to damage. Check the pressure indicated on the radiator cap next to the one recommended by your OEM.

In case you need to change it, I recommend adding a radiator cap with a temperature sensor, or even a high-pressure one designed for racing. This type of cap will raise the boiling point of your coolant mixture, protecting your ATV from major overheating damage.

#2 Check Your Coolant

For a perfectly working cooling system, you need your coolant:

  • to be mixed 50:50 with water (or whatever else your mechanic recommends for your usage);
  • to be changed every two years or so;
  • to be at the recommended levels found in your ATV’s manual.

Anything else, and your ATV will overheat constantly. In most cases, you will find that your coolant levels are too low, so you just top it off again. If you see spillage during your ride, then this is definitely a top priority for you.

#3 Check Your Fuel Mixture

Running a lean fuel mixture can often cause overheating and long-term damage to your ATV. Running rich or lean are very common ATV problems too, so it’s definitely worth a check.

I have a complete guide on how to check the condition of your fuel mixture, as well as how to fix it. I suggest you take a look if you haven’t yet found the culprit of your overheating problem.

#4 Check Your Water Pump and Head Gasket

Hopefully, you already found your solution and don’t need to change any parts. Still, a blown water pump or head gasket can often cause your quad to overheat as well. Check out these parts for leakage and change them accordingly.

After you’ve successfully found the issue with your four wheeler overheating, it’s time to prevent it from ever happening again.

If you continue to ride in harsh conditions, problems like a faulty radiator cap or a blown head gasket are going to keep appearing. You can add more protection with the four accessories I share with you below.

How Do I Prevent My Quad from Overheating?

Product Reviews

There are obvious answers such as: don’t ride in extreme heat, or don’t put a lot of stress on your engine. But that’s no fun!

So instead, I’ll share the best four ATV updates that can improve your cooling system:

  • Electrical radiator fan: This type of aftermarket fan is not an expensive upgrade, and it can really change the game. Just by reading the temperature on the screen, you will be aware of how hot your engine is running and you will be able to stop before any damage is done. Not to mention that it cools down your radiator much quicker and doesn’t rely on your fuel like its mechanical alternative.
  • Aftermarket water pump: A water pump and impeller kit made for better coolant flow through your quad can only add to the efficiency of your cooling system. If you already need to change your water pump because it’s leaking, I would invest in an aftermarket variant.
  • Coolant recovery tank: A simple bottle with a hose can make quite a difference. With this accessory, you can save up the spilled coolant from your radiator and keep it until it’s cooled off. Afterward, the system will suck up the mixture again and no coolant will be lost.
  • High-pressure radiator cap: I mentioned this one above, but I have to include it here too. This is a pro’s solution to add an extra layer of protection to your engine by preventing the cooling mixture from boiling. This doesn’t make your engine run cooler though, it’s just a safety precaution for extreme and irreparable damage to your motor.

What Damage is Caused by Overheating Engine?

Depending on how hot your engine gets, overheating can destroy many parts. For instance, your piston rings can shatter, your pistons can crack, and they can eventually get melted on your cylinders. Other common results of overheating are blowing the head gasket, breaking the water pump, and melting the spark plug electrode straps. Nonetheless, here is a breakdown of what type of damage you can expect if your ATV engine overheats constantly:

  • Performance Decline: An overheated engine immediately reduces performance, resulting in a sluggish and unresponsive ATV. In extreme cases, the vehicle can shut down to prevent further damage.
  • Increased Wear and Tear: As the engine overheats, fluids inside thin, leading to decreased lubrication. This increases friction and causes the parts to wear down faster.
  • Piston and Cylinder Damage: The heat can cause components like pistons, cylinder walls, and heads to expand and, in severe instances, melt. Melted pistons can fuse with the cylinder, leading to irreparable damage.
  • Blown Head Gasket: Overheating can lead to a blown head gasket, which can cause coolant to leak into the engine or exhaust. This leads to rapid coolant loss and potentially harmful smoke emission.
  • Engine Knocking: If engine oil burns off due to overheating, it can lead to engine knocking. This metal-to-metal contact can lead to a seized engine if not addressed immediately.

Bob Kelly

Hey there, my name is Bob and I've been riding ATVs, dirt bikes, and UTVs for most of my life. Going on outdoor adventures has always been my passion. I love sharing tips and tricks with beginners who are getting ready to join the world of outdoor enthusiasts. You can reach me at bobtheatvguy@gmail.com if you want to get in touch.

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